Narrowing Options in the Ukraine Crisis
Russian President Vladimir Putin recognized the independence of two Russian separatist republics in the Donbas region of Ukraine after a televised speech on Monday. The same liberal media that was utterly convinced Putin had successfully installed and extorted the sitting president of the United States just a few years ago was sent into a state of delirium wondering what havoc the madman in Moscow could wreak in Ukraine and beyond.
Since Putin’s decree, the Kremlin announced Russian troops will be sent for “peacekeeping functions” in the two recently recognized republics, which some fear is simply a forward presence looking for a pretext for a broader invasion of Ukraine. This seems to be what the White House thinks as well. Though the Biden administration was initially hesitant to call what transpired Monday an invasion, President Joe Biden suggested Putin’s latest moves were the “beginning of a Russian invasion of Ukraine,” in a Tuesday afternoon address announcing sweeping sanctions against the Russians and additional troop deployments to the Baltic states.
Putin’s recognition of the separatist republics, while an obstacle to potential diplomatic solutions to the conflict, comes from a premise everyone should have acknowledged in the first place: Russia has a historical and cultural interest in protecting the Russian population in eastern Ukraine.
Putin’s address, which spanned just about an hour, was a meandering tale of the history of Russian-Ukrainian relations spanning back to the Bolshevik revolution, with the flourishes typical of Russian propaganda. He questioned the legitimacy of Ukrainian democracy and its attempts to insert itself into western institutions like NATO, whose further expansion, in Putin’s opinion, presents security concerns for Russia. While Putin used creative license in retelling these events, that does not mean his argument is devoid of merit. Despite what the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv tweets, territorial Ukraine is a part of the cradle of the Russian nation. Certainly, NATO expansion has caused relations with post-Soviet Russia to deteriorate. And, yes, the West did encourage the Euromaidan protests, which led to the removal of Viktor Yanukovych as the president of Ukraine.
“The Donbas is Russian in language and culture,” Col. Douglas Macgregor (ret.) told The American Conservative via email. “In 2014, a plebiscite that should have been held would have allowed virtually all of the people South of Kiev and East of the Dnieper River to vote themselves into Russia. We stopped that from happening when we involved ourselves.”
The televised event ended with the Russian president signing a decree recognizing the Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic.
Despite reports from Western media that Putin dropped this figurative bombshell while en route to dropping literal bombshells on Kyiv, Putin informed other world leaders of his intentions before making the announcement. The Kremlin claimed that both German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron were informed of Putin’s pending action and “expressed their disappointment with this development of the situation,” though both remained willing to try and find a diplomatic solution to the situation in Ukraine. Both countries were parties to the signing of the Minsk II agreement in 2015 that sought a diplomatic solution to the emergence of separatist-held territories.
Scholz, speaking with Putin over the phone, told the Russian president that the recognition of Russian separatists “would be a gross contradiction of the Minsk agreement for a peaceful settlement of the conflict in east Ukraine and a unilateral breach of these deals from the Russian side.”
The European Union also cautioned Putin against recognizing the independence of Russian separatist republics in the Donbas. High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell told reporters in Brussels that the E.U. “call[s] upon President Putin to respect international law and the Minsk agreements and expect him not to recognize the independence of Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts.”
Russia’s recognition of the separatist republics wasn’t simply an act of Russia’s executive in consultation with his Security Council. Last week, the Russian Duma voted for recognition of the separatist republics in Donetsk and Luhansk.
Russia’s recognition of the separatist republics, which claimed independence from Ukraine in 2014, likely means that reinvigorating Minsk II or devising a Minsk III is no longer on the table, given that the key provision of the Minsk agreements was autonomous governance for Donetsk and Luhansk directed by Ukrainian election law. Though it narrows the scope of diplomatic solutions available to the interested parties, a reinvigorated Minsk II or Minsk III was unlikely to succeed anyway, because the West failed to present Russia with any serious bargaining chips, like a moratorium on NATO membership for Ukraine or a revival of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty.
A future offer could actually draw the lines of the republics in Donetsk and Luhansk in exchange for a drawdown of Russian troops along Ukraine’s borders. While this has been a red-line for the Ukrainians in the past, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky may find it more desirable than the alternative, which could well be the Russian capture of much of the country’s eastern oblasts without Ukraine being able to muster much of a resistance.
“Russian troops in Belorussia are there to guard the flank in the event that the West interferes and to tie down Ukrainian forces around Kiev that might otherwise intervene,” said Macgregor, who is a senior fellow with TAC. “Moscow is also sensitive to the fact that the vast majority of citizens living West of the River and North/Northeast of Kiev are true Ukrainians.” While some claimed Putin’s speech indicated Russia could wipe Ukraine off the map via a full-scale invasion, “Moscow does not have the troop strength to control more territory in the face of serious hostility,” given its current troop levels stationed around Ukraine’s borders, Macgregor added.
U.S. claims of an imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine may very well turn out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If the West keeps doubling down on sanctions and troop deployments without forwarding any serious diplomatic solution, then the Russians may very well decide that if they are going to be punished for “invading” regardless of whether they do or not, then they might as well take what they can of eastern Ukraine.